United Airlines Ruin Their Brand Through Recent Actions

Photo courtesy of Jules Meulemans, Wikipidia

Last month United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz was named PRWeek U.S. Communicator of the Year, and this month his skills were put to the test. United Express Flight 3411, headed from Chicago to Louisville on April 9, sparked international attention when security officers dragged a passenger off of the plane who refused to be bumped to another flight.

Passengers were offered compensation up to $1,000 in exchange for their seats as four United employees needed seats on the full flight. Passengers were then randomly selected and were asked to leave the aircraft. One passenger, 69-year-old Dr. David Dao, was forcibly removed off of the aircraft. He was dragged through the plane by United Airlines officials, leaving Dr. Dao bloodied.

According to Communication Scholar W. Timothy Coombs, a crisis is, "the perception of an unpredictable event that threatens important expectancies of stakeholders and can seriously impact an organization's performance and generate negative outcomes,” and crisis communication as "the collection, processing, and dissemination of information required to address a crisis situation.”

Since the incident, Munoz has released four statements, which are available on the company’s website. The statements have received serious backlash from other communication professionals and the public. In the first, Munoz apologizes only for, “having to re-accommodate these customers.” The statement, which was the company’s first chance to correct the situation, failed to apologize to the individual or take responsibility for the incident.

The second official statement reads, “Treating our customers and each other with respect and dignity is at the core of who we are, and we must always remember this no matter how challenging the situation.” The statement’s irony is unavoidable as while the situation of Flight 3411 may have been what United deems as challenging, the company’s core values were evidently forgotten.

The security’s use of unnecessary force was completely unreasonable, as Dr. Dao was not a threat to other passengers or United Airlines employees. The officer whom removed Dr. Dao has since been placed on leave with pending review.

In United’s final statement to date on the subject, Munoz writes, “This horrible situation has provided a harsh learning experience from which we will take immediate, concrete action. We have committed to our customers and our employees that we are going to fix what's broken so this never happens again.” A lack of humanity, respect, and reasoning cannot be fixed, but should be engrained into their company.

While it may be true that United is working to ensure a similar situation like this never occurs again, the damage may already be done. According to USA Today, United suffered a $255 million loss in market value the day after the incident. As expected, many airline customers have vowed to take their business elsewhere.

In the world of crisis communications, companies have three options—to do nothing, to do something or to do more. In United’s case, the company chose to do more, only further worsening the situation. By placing the blame on customers and choosing to not apologize first and foremost may have tarnished United’s brand for good.